What and where are the bandhas in yoga?
I recently received this question from a student: He says, “I just read a comment from a yoga teacher stating that bandhas are a myth, that activating the anus or muscles of [the] base of [the] pelvis doesn’t help in any way to jump back or through. Can you comment please.”
One of the main texts describing the yoga practices of asana and pranayama is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes uddiyana and mula bandha as practices which use the body and mind to direct the movement of energy. (The text doesn’t mention jumping back at all.) So are bandhas the engagement of certain muscles or are they energetic? Yes. I’d suggest that the concept of bandha can cover many expressions of it: physical, energetic, even metaphorical. Although the word bandha is usually translated literally as “lock”, if I were defining the concept more generally, I might define bandhas as a focused internal awareness with a direction.
When we refer to bandhas, there are two we are usually referring to: uddiyana and mula bandha. Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes uddiyana bandha this way:
“The drawing back of the abdomen above [and below] the navel is called uddiyana-bandha.” (Ch.3: Vs.57 – Mohan translation)
And it describes mula bandha this way:
“Pressing the perineum with the heel, contract the perineum and draw the apana upwards. This is known as mula-bandha.”
(Ch. 3: Vs.:61 – Mohan translation)
The intent of the muscular contractions and focused attention described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as mula and uddiyana bandha is not about jumping back. It’s about subtle internal practice intended to lead towards states of meditation. However, those same muscular contractions with focused attention affect our physical expression as well. Does engaging certain muscles affect how you control movement in the body? Yes, definitely. Anyone who has ever watched a dance performance or watched gymnastics in the Olympics has seen what it looks like when subtle control over body movement is mastered.
So let’s talk about the anatomy of the physical idea of bandhas for a moment. Physically, the description of mula bandha in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is directing our attention to an area around the perineum. One of the main groups of muscles that we find there are the pubococcygeus muscles, often abbreviated as the PC muscles. The action of those muscles when they contract is to lift the floor of the pelvis, and in the process, provide muscular support for the organs and viscera that are located above the pelvic bowl. Indirectly, the PC muscles also support and stabilize the spine because it is the pelvis that supports the spine.
Muscles related to bandha
Physically, the description of uddiyana bandha in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is directing our attention to the deeper layers of musculature behind the surface layer of abdominals. If we go a couple layers deep to the rectus abdominis on the surface, we’ll find the transverse abdominis and the iliopsoas. The main action of transverse abdominis when it contracts is to compress the abdomen and stabilize the torso. The primary action of the iliopsoas is to flex the hip joint. Psoas major, one half of the iliopsoas, is the muscle that we initiate walking from.
You could imagine that if we combine all of this muscular action to stabilize the spine at the deepest layers of our body, and then use a muscle as powerful as the iliopsoas to initiate movement, that it could have a big impact on how light and steady we feel when we do an action like picking up and jumping back. Are these muscular engagements an instant doorway to jumping back? No. There is of course additional muscle engagement, sufficient strength, and effective technique necessary to do a movement like jumping back. Working with the idea of bandhas will not make us instantly jump back. It can affect how our jump backs look and feel though. How we initiate that movement, and where we move from to create the movement of jumping back, can certainly affect how light it feels and looks.
Now let’s explore the idea of bandhas as tools to manage our energy. If we have the idea that Yoga is a broader idea than asana, that it is actually a path towards deeper focus, resulting in focus so deep that we no longer distinguish between ourselves and our object of meditation, then we need tools to act as a bridge to eventually connect us from here to there. We could choose to start on the Yoga path with asana because our body can be a relatively easy thing to pay attention to. Holding our attention on any object can be tricky though. The mind does like to wander. Using a more subtle tool like the breath can deepen our attention while easing our nervous system, which also makes it easier to continue to pay attention. I understand bandhas as a part of the breath.
Breath as part of bandha
We use muscular control to manage the breath while doing an asana practice. The breath gives information to our nervous system and vice versa. The muscular control of breath provided by the idea of bandha affects the speed and quality of our breath. In other words, changing the shape and/or tension in the abdominal container has an effect on how the parts of that container can and cannot move, which then affects the feeling of our breath. How we manage our breath affects our nervous system and in that way it does affect our energetic experience.
If you watch a scene in a horror movie where the killer jumps out from behind the door, what happens to your muscles and your breathing? More than likely your muscles tense up and your breathing speeds up. The experience of that moment has a quality to it…terror! In contrast, imagine you’re sitting on the beach enjoying the sunset. More than likely your muscles are relaxed and your breathing is likewise relaxed and slow. That experience has a quality to it as well. So we can use the intention to subtly contract certain muscles while breathing in a specific way to affect the nervous system and create a particular experience.
An object of meditation
Another way of conceptualizing bandhas is as an object of meditation, rather than as a secret magic trick for jumping back. If the exploration of bandha keeps your attention and holds that attention deeply in one place, then you are moving in the direction of Yoga, as more broadly defined, because you are moving in the direction of one-pointed focused attention. In that case, bandhas have become your object of meditation.
Hopefully our yoga practice is helping us achieve a greater sense of balance in our life. It’s certainly one of the positive benefits reported by many practitioners. The idea of a rooting bandha and a lifting bandha could also be used as a way to describe our exploration of balance. But, a balance between what and what? I could suggest a balance between effort and ease, or stability and lightness, or grounding and lifting. In a more mundane or practical sense that might look like a balance between exciting adventure in life and being present for home, work, and relationships. It’s prana and apana or yin and yang or any of the other many ways to describe the balance of seemingly opposing energies.